Museum services for schools are facing hard times which means that, for many, adopting business practices is the only way to survive, writes Julian MacQueen.
For anyone working in education, the current business culture comes as a challenge full of insecurity. And for the education services provided by museums, the arrival of local management of schools has signalled an end to local authority funding. Well, almost. Reading Borough Council still provides a schools loans service free of charge, but in neighbouring Oxfordshire the same services must be paid for.
Until LMS, Oxfordshire's museum education service was a stand-alone department offering a free loan service of artefacts to schools. Martyn Brown, area director and county museums officer for Oxfordshire, says they "decided to integrate the museum loan service with the schools library service, and those services are now marketed as a business called Resource Plus".
The reorganised service is aimed at schools who contract in by subscription and the benefits became immediately apparent. Library and museum vans used for transporting objects were now one service which made savings, and the two previously separate departments were able to match and enhance each other's resources as an object might be used to illustrate a particular book.
"There has been a lot of cross-fertilisation," says Martyn Brown. By targeting its collections at key stages in the national curriculum, Oxfordshire has created "a huge and continued interest" with schools recognising the value of real objects.
But being dependent on schools' financial viability adds a large element of insecurity. "As budgets have been squeezed (Oxfordshire County Council is having to cut Pounds 10 million), schools have opted not to buy from Resource Plus," he adds.
Other counties, such as Somerset and Warwickshire, says South East Museums Education Unit director Sue Wilkinson, have taken a similar road, charging schools for the services they provide.
"It's all part of the Thatcherite ethos of being self-supporting that has infiltrated local authorities and affected all their services, not just museums. Museum education is usually a bolt-on thing and schools services are incredibly vunerable." Museum services are part of local authority provision and so are under threat but within this situation there are choices, the market route being one option.
Karen Hull, director of museum services in Reading, values the borough's loan service. It is part of the interpretive section and, grant-aided by Berkshire County Council, it provides a free, county-wide service. Karen Hull was working for Oxfordshire when it decided to follow the market road.
"I was very sorry to see the loan service disappear," she says. "I felt that the separation of the loans service from the museum service was a mistake. " Education, she believes, should be the core of a museum's activities so removing the loans service and making it a paid for option, "takes the heart out of the work". "Once it's paid for, it changes," she says. Having watched Oxfordshire do exactly that, she is pleased to be in a county where her vision of the loan service as a core service providing maximum access flexibility will have a chance to be realised.
For the larger institutions such as the British Museum, the change in climate has signalled a move away from direct, hands-on teacher training, as that is now more schools-based. Some national museums such as the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich have embraced the business ethos, but John Reeve, head of education at the British Museum, defines his department's role as responding to "other priorities".
"The enormous pressure of numbers means we've put much more effort into producing resources," he says. Developing an impact on gallery planning and exhibition design comes ahead of income-generating activities.
If education services in larger institutions are going to weather the storm, either by using their position to develop a strong market approach or, more importantly, because they are outside local authority control, it is the smaller, county museums that are going to be faced with the difficult choices.
"In some ways the business ethos can be a positive asset to smaller museum services," argues Sue Wilkinsom, "because as staff see their museum under threat they will start justifying their existence, and do more education work."
But no amount of innovation will save some loan services. Bradford City Council, faced with cuts of between Pounds 18 to Pounds 19 million, has had to dismantle its once nationally- renowned museum education service. As in Oxfordshire, the loan service is being merged with the schools library service, but with the loss of nine jobs, it will be reduced to a skeletal service. And with some irony, the results of a recent survey showed that many local Bradford schools would be prepared to pay for the service with or without local authority assistance.
"When you go out with the van, it's extraordinary how a box of real objects can generate real excitment," says Karen Hull. But, one can only wonder, for how long? And for how many school children?
Martyn Brown, area director and county museums officer for Oxfordshire. Tel: 01865 810563. Sue Wilkinson, South East Museums Education Unit director. Tel: 0171 717 1245. Karen Hull, director of museum services in Reading. Tel: 01743 399810. John Reeve, head of education at the British Museum. Tel: 0171 636 1555.